Feb
07

Reinventing Classical Music

A really good friend of mine, Diana Haskell, plays assistant principal clarinet in The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. She left her position as principal second in The Milwaukee Symphony in 2003, for what most musicians would hope would be a better playing position. Yet this orchestra, like so many others, is financially under ever mounting pressure, leaving a question mark for Diana, and others in The St. Louis Symphony and beyond what their futures hold.

I posted an article that appeared in Wired about the transformation of the music business, but what about the state of symphony orchestras which continue to sputter with many coming to a close? Sadly, lots has been written on this topic. I did a quick search and came up with an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1987 that discusses some of the financial troubles of a number of orchestras back then. I found another on the same subject in the NYT in 2003: Music; How to Kill Orchestras And of course now, over twenty years later, what has changed?

But my question about the state of orchestra financial health actually has less to do with the music itself and more to do with the way we are experiencing classical music.

Why does a night of orchestral music need to be so unapproachable, have such formal seating for their audiences and seem so high brow? Why do we need all the pomp and circumstance of a big hall? Why can’t dinner be served in between large scale musical works or instead dessert and coffee and wine with appropriate breaks take to invite the orchestral musicians to interact freely with the audience? How about a lot more chamber music- truly small works-written by more living composers who talk about where they live, their families and how they write music? Or how about mixing classical music with rock, folk, jazz, story telling and theater on a regular basis?

Things need to change, or better yet expand and evolve. Of course there are some orchestras out there trying to create a more intimate experience of mixing the old and the new, but most of these groups are seen less as typical orchestras and more like bands. For example check out the clasically influenced music of The 17 Hippies. A number of the musicians in this ensemble were classically trained. Or how about one of the hottest contemporary music ensembles Alarm Will Sound? What about some funky jazz influences like The Model Citizens Big Band?

While I realize my musical examples are drifting away from 100% pure classical music, what is wrong with classical music becoming part of something more diverse?

If you are looking for a more of a traditional twist, then check out Austin Pops. While I think the idea of a young pop orchestra could be interesting, I wish this group had more panache- more soul with an attitude like the 17 Hippies. Why can’t classical orchestras have more of that?

I think we would be better musicians if this happens. Why? Because we might learn to play a bigger range of styles and in doing so find a deeper voice of expression. How many times have you heard that classical musicians are “stiff”? Maybe that is part, or even most, of our problem attracting audiences?

I think it’s time to wake up- Alarm Will Sound sure seems to have figured that out. For decades now our audiences are dwindling and financially we are suffering. It’s time to open our eyes and find a new way forward.

Maybe 17 hippies can teach all of us refined classical music lovers a few new tricks…

  • Perhaps if the issues that led to the “crisis of tonality” could be resolved, the research program of common practice music could be re-invigorated, and classical music could once again be a vibrant, popular, contemporary art form.

    To do that, you’d have to find a way to expand the framework of tonality to include new musical structures without sacrificing consonance, which mainstream audiences demand.

    Such an advance appears to be on the horizon, arising from the discovery of tuning invariance, described here:
    http://www.thummer.com/blog/2008/02/dynamic-tonality-references.html

    Tuning invariance — and Dynamic Tonality, which tuning invariance enables — could have a big impact on music:
    http://www.thummer.com/blog/2007/12/going-somewhere.html

    Dynamic Tonality is just one aspect of an effort being undertaken in Austin, Texas to increase the success rate of music education by rethinking music from the sound up.
    http://www.thummer.com/blog/2007/10/growing-market.html

    Your comments welcome! 🙂

    — Jim

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